For some reason, in the 21st century – there are still scam search ads for young adults, teenage and child models plastered about all over the internet. This scam is as old as time, it’s seedy, with shady “businesses” forcing the photography of kids and young women, either with their parents or without, and often conducting their behaviours illegally. Where these “Models Wanted Adverts” now appear online, this kind of scam used to happen openly, out in the street. Here’s how I came to accidentally create a UK, press-wide investigation into modelling scams and these sorts of businesses.
The “Models Wanted” Advert Scam
This kind of scam used to happen quite openly, out in the street.
So there you would be, a bunch of shopping bags and messed-up hair is the very last situation in which you would expect, or want to be approached by a photographer (NB: their reps were indistinguishable from other members of the public, usually wandering without wearing any identification_ promising you C-list fame and catalogue-modelling fortune. It seems to good to be true. It is.
But it happens. And being anyone with a bent towards being narcissistic, Hello-reading, hyphenated-personality… being told you could work as a TV extra because you look “interesting”, or simply there seems to be a sheer lack of models….(right!) would therefore an attractive career offer to any unsuspecting and slightly insecure individual.
A “Models Wanted” scam – it’s as old as time
There used to be a company called Zebra Collection, or “Zebra Management” that would claim to be scouting models on the street in both London and Manchester.
Like the idiot that I am in 2009, I decided to travel down this rabbit hole and explore, not really realising how clearly as money grabbing and actually 100% illegitimate they would soon show themselves up to be.
After I was approached by a photographer called ‘Michael’ who had a very basic digital camera and a slightly more impressive business card, I let him take a photo of me (look, we’re all on social media so…). The ego boost was great, but the adventure after this was a bit more seedy and dark.
“If they like your picture back in the office, they’ll give you a ring, ” said the photographer, decked out in too-normcore attire and definitely not a decent enough camera rig for taking headshots. But there we are – the rough-and-ready “street style” setup can be believable, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable.
Despite expecting this to be an empty promise, a month later I got a phone call from a London number by a woman called “Natalie” who claimed to be an agent for “Zebra Collection”. She proceeded to congratulate me on “qualifying” for being considered “model-material”. An interview then took place over the phone.
The Model Scam Conversation
It all sounds bright and breezy, as scammers do when they want your cash money. The conversation, conducted completely unprofessionally, might sound something like this:
1. “How would you describe yourself in three words?”
2. “Where do you work?”
3. “What do you like to do outside of work?”
Then the body-specific questions were then asked, and following questions 4,5, and 6, the agent claimed that the company campaigned against size zero models (ah that’s nice of them).
4. “What clothes size are you?”
5. “How tall are you?”
6. “What are your measurements?”
7. “Have you worked for an agency before or do you already have an agent?”
8. “How old are you?”
‘Natalie’ then went on to talk about what the Zebra clientèle apparently is comprised of:
“Yeah darlin’. We work wiv L’oreal, MTV and the Richard and Judy Show.”
Hold on Natalie. The defunct Richard and Judy Show in 2009? The one with all the book reviews I secretly loved? Hmmmmm yes.
How suspicious. Let’s probe further.
Natalie continued: “We are looking to build a base of models who can be used for catalogue modelling, TV extras and music videos,” she said, as if born to read the script. “We do not work in the fashion industry. Does this still sound appealing to you?”
A verbal OK was then made over the phone allowing her to get in touch with me by email about photography options, which seemed fair – me to pay for copyright, them to pay for studio and photographer hire which worked out at approximately £150 each way.
However, when an invoice came through my letterbox which said that images would have to be paid for on top of their copyright, I got my back up and asked how much it would actually cost.
“Between £200 and £750, depending on what package you want.”
For people wherein this amount of money equates to a lot – maybe even rent and bills – this is terrifying. More terrifying, is how many people fell victim to the lies and deceit back then, and will continue to do so as these scams move online – with no advertisers taking protective measures to stop it.
According to ALBA, which in 2009 was an org which looked to protect models and TV extras from being exploited in the industry insist that any management company interested in taking on new talent will always pay for portfolio costs.
Following a quick enquiry to them, a representative replied almost instantly: “Not recommended.”
Using the information to cancel my invoice and cut all ties due to being completely misled, ‘Natalie’ from the Zebra Collection went on to backtrack: “We’re not an agency.”
Huh? “What actually is it then?” I asked.
“I already told you we are not an agency,” she didn’t already tell me.
“We’re a platform where our clients can choose which models they would like to work with. It’s like a more exclusive Facebook. You have to have model-standard images to upload, this is why we have booked an exclusive photo session for you.”
In addition to booking a Manchester session, they had also booked a session in Lightrooms in London – which had not been referred to by Natalie in any previous contact. She tried to justify the scame by saying: “we are very established. You can get the best professional results at Lightrooms as you need professional pictures for your modelling portfolio. It makes it easier for companies who want to work with you.”
After conducting a simple Google search on the Zebra Collection, a string of links to forums containing numerous questions from other scouted ‘models’ revealed a high degree of uncertainty about the reputation of the company. Even the search term “Zebra Collection Scam” itself culminates in 158,000 results. Most of them looked repetitive.
In the online world, these scams have now become so prolific and disgusting, that child “models” are being recruited – again, under false circumstances.
The problem got so bad, that the Federal Trade Commission had to publish guidelines about modelling advert scams. The same happened in the UK too with UK Models’ blog consistently updating their safety advice on supporting people who might be caught out in a vanity scam online.
Fake Positive Modeling Reviews
Interestingly, positive responses for the UK’s Zebra Collection given in forums sounded very similar to the sales pitch given by Natalie and were given at dates and times in close succession to each other. Take the following example:
“March 4, 2009 5:30 PM
I have literally just go
t back from the Richard and Judy show where I was an extra in the new ‘Star Bar’ area, got to hang out with the celeb guests that were on show, drinks were free. plus was hypnotised live on camera but the celeb hypnotist and got paid £50 for day, was so much fun! This is about the 4th job The Zebra Collection have arranged for me in 2 months, did I mention the drinks were free hehehehehe.
The response is copied in its exact entirety on another website. And like I noted at the top of this piece: the Richard and Judy show had been cancelled for a couple of years. A weird fact to add, but actually the most useful in proving the point. And so, with everything documented, I then handed over all my information about these scammers to the authorities.
P.S. So, thanks for getting your show cancelled, Richard And Judy or I might’ve lost about £750 for my vanity., or at least £50 to go to small claims court had any purchase been made.